Commentary: Web3 promoters promise a brave new world of unfettered online freedom. What they’re building, however, looks a lot like Web 2.0.

Metaverse, Web3 and Blockchain Technology Concepts. Opened Hand Levitating Virtual Objects. Futuristic Tone
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I admit I don’t really understand why we’re talking about Web3. My apparently Web 2.0 life was fine and then one day last year Twitter was awash with Web3 talk. It seemed to come from nowhere. I wish it would go back there. Until it does, I have to wade through Rolling Stone articles like this: “Tips for Companies Wanting to Make the Leap From Web2 to Web3.” No, Rolling Stone, I just wanted to read more about The National.

As Jer Warren explained to me, “Basically there’s this idea that ‘web 2.0’ took away user freedom by coalescing everything under Google, Facebook and Amazon. ‘Web3’ is allegedly taking it back, somehow.” In other words, our online world has become too centralized around a few greedy megacorps, but if we just blockchain it, somehow we’ll get back to the natural order when everything is decentralized.

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Except, of course, that’s not what people want, and Web3 doesn’t deliver it.

People are people

We’ve been talking about the power of the web to “free” people from centralized power since people started using the Internet. Remember when the long tail was going to make it possible for us all to enjoy our super obscure indie bands? (Someone should have let Taylor know.) Or Joe Kraus pontificating on how Big Software would be supplanted by “Millions of Markets of Dozens.” It was all so exciting! So liberating!

So wrong.

By 2008 I was writing that “Is there money in the long tail? Probably. Do you want it? Probably not,” citing a Harvard Business School study that discovered (surprise!) that long tail economics theory didn’t work. More recently, CNET’s Stephen Shankland explained why: “There’s a power law for fame and recognition. Even if we distribute our attention more evenly, I think we’ll gravitate to a smaller set of celebrities/musicians/artists/influencers/bloggers.”

Or I can put it even more bluntly: People have neither time nor patience to devote their lives to discovering the latest band. Companies, similarly, lack the time and patience to buy software from thousands of random creators. Hence, we tend to bunch around a few winners in any given category. Sanity requires it. You can argue that Google, Facebook and Amazon (the three companies mentioned above) got their places because of Web 2.0’s centralized mess, but it’s much more likely that it happened because it was convenient for us all to search, socialize and shop in the same place.

Web 2.0 has its problems, for sure, but Web3 doesn’t really solve them.

Shake the disease

For this, I rely on people like Moxie Marlinspike, founder of the Signal app and self-described cryptographer. Marlinspike detailed how the web got centralized in the first place. For one thing, it turns out people and companies don’t want to run their own servers and so started to rely on third parties to do so for them: “The companies that emerged offering to [run servers] for you instead were successful, and the companies that iterated on new functionality based on what is possible with those networks were even more successful.”

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Meanwhile, businesses learned that they could innovate with platforms far faster than protocols would evolve. Marlinspike gave the example of email hardly evolving at all (protocol) even as Slack and other platforms innovate at lightning speed.

Against this backdrop, Web3 advocates like to talk about “distributed trust, leaderless consensus and all the mechanics of how that works, but often gloss over the reality that clients ultimately can’t participate in those mechanics,” Marlinspike argued, despite those clients (especially in a mobile world) being a critical component of the overall architecture. “Blockchains are designed to be a network of peers, but not designed such that it’s really possible for your mobile device or your browser to be one of those peers.”

Why does this matter? Because if Web3 wins “there will ultimately be billions (!) more clients than servers.” That’s a lot of unwarranted trust placed in untrusted clients.

“For example, whether it’s running on mobile or the web, a dApp like Autonomous Art or First Derivative needs to interact with the blockchain somehow–in order to modify or render state (the collectively produced work of art, the edit history for it, the NFT derivatives, etc). That’s not really possible to do from the client, though, since the blockchain can’t live on your mobile device (or in your desktop browser realistically). So the only alternative is to interact with the blockchain via a node that’s running remotely on a server somewhere.”

Sounds OK, except that “as we know, people don’t want to run their own servers.” Not to worry, because “companies have emerged that sell API access to an Ethereum node they run as a service, along with providing analytics, enhanced APIs they’ve built on top of the default Ethereum APIs, and access to historical transactions.” If this is starting to sound a lot like Web 2.0, it’s because it is. There are two companies (Infura and Alchemy) handling those interactions with the blockchain. If that sounds as centralized, or more so, than Web 2.0, it’s because it is.

“So much work, energy, and time has gone into creating a trustless distributed consensus mechanism, but virtually all clients that wish to access it do so by simply trusting the outputs from these two companies without any further verification. It also doesn’t seem like the best privacy situation. Imagine if every time you interacted with a website in Chrome, your request first went to Google before being routed to the destination and back. That’s the situation with Ethereum today. All write traffic is obviously already public on the blockchain, but these companies also have visibility into almost all read requests from almost all users in almost all dApps.”

Web3, in other words, is rapidly following in the same footsteps as the web did when moving to Web 2.0. We’re centralizing on platforms because they make it easier to interact with this supposedly decentralized nirvana, with associated protocols yielding to platforms because the latter are simply evolving faster to become more useful … by being the opposite of what Web3 promised.

None of which is to say that we won’t have some form of blockchain-powered Web in the future. Maybe we will. But let’s not kid ourselves that it will somehow change the fundamental nature of how humans interact and consume content. What it might change is which VCs clean up on the Gold Rush.

Disclosure: I work for MongoDB but the views expressed herein are mine.